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County agrees to send new library levy to voters

Multnomah County voters will be hearing a lot about libraries, and how to pay for them, for the rest of the year.

The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to put a three-year extension of the current property tax levy for libraries on the May primary ballot. That would replace an existing five-year levy that expires June 30, at the same tax rate of 89 cents for every $1,000 in assessed property value.

If voters approve the levy extension in May, county commissioners committed Thursday to putting a second measure on the November ballot that would cost taxpayers more, by creating a library district with the power to levy its own property taxes. The district, if approved by voters, likely would have authority to levy property taxes of about $1.18 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, giving the county's libraries something they've never had - stable and guaranteed funding.

Thursday's package deal was a compromise worked out over the past few weeks among county commissioners and library supporters.

Library supporters had high hopes of creating a library district after voters easily passed a county charter amendment in November 2010 that made it easier to form such a district.

But voter support for the idea faded, according to a series of polls, indicating a May library district measure would be rejected.

In response, last month county Chair Jeff Cogen proposed putting off the library district election until 2014, and putting a levy extension before voters in May, so voters wouldn't be asked to raise their property taxes.

The two-step compromise emerged after many library supporters questioned Cogen's plan.

The compromise shores up library funding, at least in part, for three years. By November, library district supporters hope to find a more favorable economic climate and a heavier voter turnout, always helpful to pass tax measures in Portland.

Library supporters packed the county commissioners' boardroom Thursday to show support for the two-step compromise. When union leader Michael Hanna asked audience members to stand if they'll commit to work on the upcoming library campaign, almost all rose in unison.

'There is tremendous passion in this room for libraries,' Cogen said. 'That's going to be our ace in the hole as we move forward here.'

The lone dissenter Thursday was John Charles, chief executive of the libertarian-oriented Cascade Policy Institute. The Portland group recently released a report suggesting privatization of the county library system or the addition of user fees to access the library or check out materials.

Charles asserted that the 'predominant users of these services are relatively affluent and well-educated,' suggesting the levy would fare better if the library imposed a $1 charge to enter the library and a 50-cent charge for each book checked out. For many people, especially teenagers, 'brick and mortar library buildings are obsolete,' Charles said.

But the county libraries are among the most popular public services in Portland. The county library system has the second-highest circulation of any system in the nation, second only to New York City, which serves an area with four times the population, said Vailey Oehlke, library director. About 35,000 people use the library every day, either in-person or on-line, she said.

'We don't see that people in this community are asking for a different type of library,' said Merris Sumrall, chief executive of The Library Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money to support the county libraries.

In the short term, the libraries will take a hit, even if voters extend the levy in May. Merely extending the current levy doesn't help the library keep up with inflation, or the cost of serving new branches added in the past few years. The library carefully saved some of the cash from the current levy to use during the latter part of the five-year period. Now that's gone.

In addition, the county can't collect the entire levy amount because of voter-approved property tax limitations, a phenomenon known as levy 'compression.'

Extending the current levy, at 89 cents per $1,000 in assessed value, would cost the owners of a median-value home up to $133 a year. A library district, taxing folks at a rate of $1.18 per $1,000 in assessed value, would increase that up to $177.

In either case, actual taxes could be lower for many Portland residents because of compression.

The median assessed value for homes in Multnomah County is almost $150,000; half have a higher assessed value and half have a lower assessed value.

Library supporters realize they have a big job, given the weak economy, getting voters to renew any property taxes, even if they remain at the current level. And, as County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury noted Thursday, voters will get confused by the prospect of two library funding measures in the space of six months.

The Library Foundation already has raised $230,000 for the May campaign, and is in talks with most of the area's leading political consultants who work on local campaigns, Sumrall said. Despite that starting campaign fund, 'We're going to have significant dollars to raise,' she said.

Brian Wilson, who works for the Kalberer Co., is campaign chairman for the ballot measure campaign. He said there'll be one campaign organization built to manage both the May and November measures.

'We're going to run one campaign all the way through to November,' he said. 'It's one message; it's one fight.'